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Northwestern football report card through the bye week: Coaching staff

Midterm grades are never fun.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

After every Northwestern football game, we hand out player grades as a way to assess the performances of individual members of the team. Now, with the bye week upon us, it’s time to take a step back and give out report cards that evaluate players and coaches over the first five weeks.

Here we have Part 3: the coaching staff. We’ve talked a lot about Mick McCall and even Pat Fitzgerald already this year, but after a win at Iowa, has there been any improvement? We examine.

It’s time for every sports fan’s favorite pastime, examining the quality of a team’s coaching staff! I am not a professional football coach, but I’ve definitely watched enough football from my couch to give unequivocal judgments after five weeks.

Pat Fitzgerald - head coac

Grade: C

Northwestern is 2-3, and that’s not where Pat Fitzgerald wants his team to be. Thanks to last week’s win against Iowa, it’s closer than some would have expected after the loss to Illinois State, but the situation is still not ideal.

Fitzgerald has had to weather Northwestern’s extreme inconsistency on both sides of the ball this season. Any evaluation of the job he’s done hinges on whether you believe he’s contributed to the inconsistency or is personally holding the team together. As per usual, it’s definitely a bit of both. Could Northwestern have been more prepared for Nebraska or Illinois State? Absolutely. Could Pat Fitzgerald have done more to improve the offensive line with hardly any viable on the bench? Probably not. He’s said multiple times that if he had anyone behind the starting five who could help out, he would play them.

If Fitzgerald was doing a truly terrible job as a football coach, Northwestern’s lack of personnel and depth would turn this season into a 0-5 mess. You can usually tell when a football team quits on its coach, and after Northwestern’s unbelievable effort last week, that clearly has not happened. As of October 8, Northwestern isn’t Purdue, and Fitzgerald is a big reason for that.

During his press conferences, Fitzgerald has looked as irritated as the fans about some aspect of players’ performances. After the win at Iowa, he criticized the coverage unit and asked for more out of the offensive line. After the loss to Nebraska, he chewed out Jack Mitchell. After the Duke game, he called out some players for “being too sensitive”. He’s repeatedly emphasized that the players seem to be performing well in practice, but during games things fall apart.

On the other hand, he has also recognized that he must do a better job of preparing his players. As we saw against Illinois State and Nebraska, Northwestern has not been unable to adjust in-game and come away with wins like it did last year. Northwestern’s concentration levels have often been poor, and that’s partially on the coach. There have been missed tackles, poor reads and an appalling number of mental mistakes. Northwestern hasn’t even come close to Fitzgerald’s standards, and part of that is definitely his fault. And of course, there’s the Mick McCall situation, which will be covered in his grade.

In the end, as the appointed leader of the team, the team’s performance is pinned onto his desk. Fitzgerald’s grade is an overall grade of how the entire team has performed over its first five games. The team has been gloriously inconsistent, and that averages out to a C.

Mick McCall - offensive coordinator

Grade: D+

Yes, I haven’t given Mick McCall an “F”. No, I’m not crazy, I’m just probably a bit hungover from the 38-point showing against Iowa.

Looking through Rob Schaefer’s offense grades earlier this week, it was hard to find players who hadn’t improved over last season, as long as you ignore the offensive line. Austin Carr has been magnificent. Thorson is far more confident and simply better than last season, even if he still manages to have some mental lapses. Justin Jackson remains excellent when he gets the ball enough. The offense, at times, does actually look better than it did last year.

That is also somewhat backed up by statistics. Northwestern has improved by 17 spots in offensive S&P. Austin Carr has more receiving yards and catches through five games than he had all of last year by a huge margin. The offense, while not exactly sustaining drives, can be occasionally dangerous downfield. The football fan and the offensive coordinator are often mortal enemies. Maybe we’ve let our disgust at watching Northwestern cloud our judgment...

Still, Northwestern is just 94th in the country in offensive S&P. The rushing offense has regressed considerably and has dropped to 108th. There’s a reason you’ve been seeing memes about Mick McCall’s incompetence for the last two weeks. The offense is still not good, and it hasn’t been good for a while. That being said, I still think it’s a bit unfair to pin Northwestern’s entire offensive struggles on Mick McCall, especially when the team has an unreliable kicker and a horrendously inconsistent offensive line.

However, this is McCall’s offense, ostensibly, and he has to be to blame for something. There are moments in which Northwestern’s offense just does not function properly, and at some point that boils down to coaching and play calling. The offensive line in particular could definitely benefit from better technique and situational awareness (looking at you, Adam Cushing). Even if the offensive line starts to gel after a decent showing against Iowa, these are deficiencies that should have been ironed out in preseason, not in Week 5.

Fitzgerald repeatedly stressed the “body of work”, and to this point, the body of work has not been great for McCall, despite him being part of the winningest coaching staff in NU history. His offenses are routinely at the bottom in points scored, yardage gained and the more advanced statistics. Even with Northwestern’s reliance on big plays, Northwestern remains 108th in ISOPPP+, the Football Outsiders’ explosiveness metric, because it runs so many plays that do absolutely nothing.

By now, we know what McCall is. He hasn’t been significantly better than the end of last year (when he earned a C-) but he definitely hasn’t been worse. His offense has remained comfortably mediocre with sparks of brilliances and lots of droughts of unwatchable play, which is what we’ve all come to expect. He gets a half-letter grade off for the diminishing marginal “returns” of his tenure, but I can’t give him an F because things haven’t gone totally off the rails. Cue fans banging their heads on desks when Jim Phillips uses this same logic to give him more time.

Mike Hankwitz - defensive coordinator

Grade: B/B-

What would Mike Hankwitz do for a cheat code that turned off injuries?

As predicted, the defense has regressed this season without names like Lowry, Gibson, VanHoose and Henry. However, the biggest issue for the Northwestern defense has been its complete lack of depth. Hankwitz has had his hands full with injuries this season. Keith Watkins is out for the year. Matt Harris, judging from the addition of C.J. Robbins as a new captain, is a long way away from being healthy. Kyle Queiro just came back and made a big difference against Iowa. The replacements, (Trae Williams, Montre Hartage and Alonzo Mayo), continue to serve up big plays on defense. Anthony Walker Jr. is only just looking like his old self after suffering a knee injury in training camp. Nonetheless, Northwestern’s defense has endured, even if the results haven’t been inspiring.

Hankwitz’s impact on the defense has been mixed. Bringing in players like Joe Jones and trusting Jaylen Prater with a huge role in the defense showed good player development and decision-making. Failing to develop any semblance of a consistent pass rush until Week 5, though, was not great. But as I keep reiterating, much of Hankwitz’s performance has to be judged through what the players have actually done.

I’m sure Hankwitz has been trying to turn Ifeadi Odenigbo into a one-man wrecking crew for the last three years, but if he can’t execute on the field for that timespan, there’s only so much Hankwitz can do. What he can do is dial up more pressure, which he did against Iowa, mix things up (demoting Odenigbo and adding Robbins to the starting lineup) and improve the secondary’s ability to defend against the pass. Northwestern rarely blitzes, but if the team is going to succeed, it’s going to need a huge pass rush presence to cover for the weaker secondary unit.

Hankwitz may not be able to force his players to make more tackles on the field, but he can absolutely put them in better positions to succeed by being more prepared for mobile quarterbacks and more disciplined when defending against the run. Thanks to abysmal performances against Nebraska and Western Michigan, the advanced metrics have Northwestern’s run defense performing worse than its pass defense, even with three essentially rookie defensive backs (thank the football gods for Godwin Igwebuike). And that makes sense. Northwestern’s defense has been on the field for ages because it can’t stop the run and the clock keeps moving. Hankwitz has to do a better job of getting his guys off the field on third down, and that starts by putting teams behind the chains on first and second down.

But despite some worrying signs, Northwestern’s defense still looks like a solid unit. Although Iowa put up 31 points, most of those points were scored when Iowa had great field position via Desmond King. The defense played well, and with players getting healthier over the bye week, there’s good reason for optimism. While the offense may have peaked against Iowa, there’s a good chance that Hankwitz can turn this around and bring Northwestern’s defense back to closer to its 2015 level. There’s also a chance the defense wears out again. Only time will tell, but for now I think he’s done a solid job with what he’s had to work with.